An Introduction To Basic Navigation Skills
If you enjoy getting out and exploring the natural wonders, features, lanscapes and wildlife of the British countryside but don't know how to
read a map or use a compass
to find your way around safely then a great day out on foot could all to easily turn into your worst nightmare if you take the wrong path or direction and
get lost. Learning the basics won't make you an expert navigator but hopefully will enable you to avoid the nightmare of getting lost as you explore
Britain's network of paths tracks and open access land.
One word of warning for your safety : Please do not venture into any area unless you are confident you can find your way around without the aid of
signposts, boards, other waymarks on the ground or a working GPS unit - their batteries don't last forever and could fail just when you them the most.
Maps are available in different scales and layouts some of the better known being Ordnance Survey, Harveys and A-Z. This introduction will
concentrate on the Ordnance Survey's Explorer and Landranger maps as these cover the whole of the country and are widely used by walkers.
The scale is generally expressed as a ratio such as 1:25,000.
What does this ratio mean?
1 unit of distance on the map represents 25,000 units on the ground. So for
- 1:25,000 scale maps 4 centremetres on the map = 1 kilometre on the ground (2.5 inches = 1 mile)
- 1:40,000 scale maps 2.5 centremetres on the map = 1 kilometre on the ground (1.56 inches = 1 mile)
- 1:50,000 scale maps 2 centremetres on the map = 1 kilometre on the ground (1.25 inches = 1 mile)
Remember the lower the ratio, the larger the scale and the greater the detail shown
For example if you were to compare 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 scale maps for the same area you would notice that
- Each Explorer map covers a smaller area of ground than a Landranger map so for longer trips if you are using the Explorer series you will need more
maps than you would if using the Landranger series
- The Explorer map shows features such as field boundaries that aren't shown on Landranger maps so you may find it easier as a navigation aid to
confirm for instance which side of a boundary you should be on.
- When planning a walk the fewer features on the Landranger map make it easier to interpret how flat or hilly/mountainous your intended route is
Looking at any Ordnance Survey, Harveys or other make of map you will notice a number of different lines, symbols and coloured areas that
represent different features, buildings etc on the ground.
Why are they there?
To give a 2-dimensional picture of what you see on the ground based on aerial photographs. This introduction will concentrate on
general terrain, paths and boundaries, as these appear to cause the most problems for those new to map reading. Explanations of the other symbols used can
be found on the maps legend - a box listing them all that is usually located on one edge or in one corner of the map.
The brown lines on a map that represent points of equal height.
Paths and Boundaries
A look at the map below tells you:
- It has areas of open hilly moorland (1) - the areas of white space with a number of brown contour lines that have different spacings between
- There are small wooded areas in the valleys and on the hillsides (2) - the green shaded areas with symbols of trees in them.
- A village (3) (the pale red/brown shaded blocks) and reservoirs (4) (the larger blue shaded areas) follow the main valley road (5) - the
bold red line running down the map.
- The footpaths might be fairly firm underfoot with no boggy ground as there are no symbols for scrub, bracken/heath/rough grass, or marsh/reeds around them.
It doesn't tell you how easy the paths are to follow. They could be overgrown (the absence of scrub or bracken/heath/rough grass symbols is no guarantee
of a clear path), include stiles that may not be dog friendly or just not be visible on the ground.
A Note of Caution
How do you know the route you want to take is a footpath or bridleway that you can freely follow?
All public footpaths (1) and bridleways (2) are shown as green (OS Explorer maps) or red (OS Landranger maps) dotted or dashed lines
respectively. If they also have diamonds spaced out along them (5) this indicates a named or National Trail. Other paths you can use if open,
known as permissive paths are shown in orange on OS Explorer maps (they are not shown on OS Landranger maps). Black dotted/dashed lines are not public
rights of way; they could be either private paths (4) (that you might be allowed to use) or council boundaries (3) (not visible on the
No map is 100% accurate, it simply shows an area at the time the aerial photograph or satellite image was taken. This is usually indicated
either in the legend or a corner of the map by the copyright or revision date statement.
Features can and do change with time, so do remember that the absence of a feature or a feature being present that is not shown on the map doesn't
neseccarily mean you are in the wrong place. You may just need to check your GPS or map bearings to confirm your location.
An indexing system that identifies every location on a map with a unique alphanumeric (letter and number) address code.
A basic introduction to this navigation aid providing an outline of what it is and what it does.
A few basic notes on what you need to consider when planning a simple walk or ramble.